Civil Sidewalks, Lewis Lapham, and the struggle for the soul of cities


Cities often get vilified as the cauldrons of all that’s wrong in the world – greed, vice, pollution, and all manner of social ills – but they are also the incubators of ideas that are humankind’s last best shot at solving the social and environmental problems that threaten our long-term stability and prosperity. So ruminating on the indispensable role of cities, as Lapham’s Quarterly does with its fall issue, is more than just an academic exercise or interesting read.

“The Census Bureau counts 232,581,397 Americans, 82.6 percent of the population, living in the nation’s cities, but if our moralists and intelligence services are to be believed, they do so at no small risk to the safety of their persons and the security of their souls,” editor Lewis Lapham, who ran the venerable Harper’s Magazine before stepping down to start LQ, writes in the opening essay of an issue entitled simply “The City.”

Lapham goes on to note the contradiction of how rural areas and suburbs get celebrated as somehow housing the more noble values of the common folk, raising the questions, “If the city is the sewer of vice and a slough of despond, why do so many people choose to live there? On what toxic landfill does the city stand as the embodiment of its ennobling cognate, civilization?”

In an interview with the Bay Guardian, Lapham puts the increasingly important role of cities even more succinctly: “The future is urban.” As the population grows and natural resources become more scarce – and as sea levels rise – the population of cities will swell and the imperative of solving our long neglected problems will grow. And where else but the cities will new ideas find their laboratories?

But in San Francisco and other big cities, many still struggle with what it means to be a city, with all the tolerance for messy urban realities that entails. Witness Prop. L on SF's fall ballot, which actually seeks to outlaw the simple act of sitting on a sidewalk, or as its proponents call it (in an ironic testament to their desire for order above all things), the Civil Sidewalks Law.

Lapham told me this fear of the great unwashed masses (“The rich are afraid of the poor”), an emotion that has fueled the growth of the suburbs and the massive waste of resources that entailed, has hindered the ability and willingness of city leaders to advocate for common values and define the lead role that cities should be playing in this troubled country.

“We don’t have an idea of the city as a great, good place, and we have to start with that,” Lapham told us. “We have to decide what is a city, what work does it do, what is the value, and how do we promote that value.”

This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is a good place to start that debate. As always, the journal includes the writings of great thinkers throughout time, from Thucydides writing about Athens in 430 BC to Frederick Kaufman writing about New York City in 2008. Celebrated urbanist Jane Jacobs does a great job of capturing the allure of cities – that special something that seems to escape the fearful promoters of Civil Sidewalks – in an essay she wrote about NYC in 1961.

“Reformers have long observed city people loitering on busy corners, hanging around in candy stores and bars and drinking soda pop on stoops, and having passed a judgment, the gist of which is, ‘This is deplorable! If these people had decent homes and a more private or bosky outdoor place, they wouldn’t be on the street!’ This judgment represents a profound misunderstanding of cities. It makes no more sense than to drop in at a testimonial banquet in a hotel and conclude that if these people had wives who could cook, they would give their parties at home,” she writes. “The point of both the testimonial banquet and the social life of city sidewalks is precisely that they are public. They bring people together who do not know each other in an intimate, private social fashion – and in most cases do not care to know each other in that fashion. Nobody can keep an open house in a great city. Nobody wants to. And yet if interesting, useful, and significant contacts among people are confined to acquaintances suitable for private life, the city becomes stultified.”

Indeed, that was the observation that journalist H.L Mencken wrote about many East Coast as he penned an essay in 1920 celebrating San Francisco as “an American city that somehow managed to hold itself above pollution by the national philistinism and craze for standardization, the appalling progress of 100 percent Americanism, the sordid and pathetic dream of unimaginative, timorous, and inferior men.”

Mencken says he can't quite put a finger on what makes San Francisco so special, touching on our international influences and the fortitude developed by braving fog, steep hills, and messy urban realities, which he says have given us a unique appreciation for life. “The San Franciscans have learned how to bear it. They are stupendously alive while they are in motion, but they knock off betimes. The town is rich in loafing places: restaurants, theaters, parks. No one seems to work very hard. The desperate, consuming industry of the East is quite unknown. One could not imagine a sweatshop in the town. Puffs of Oriental air come with the fog. There is nothing European about the way life is lived; the color is all Asiatic.”

A decidedly different portrait of San Francisco comes in the journal's only other entry on this city, written in 1849 by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who helped establish an important military base in a city that had only recently changed its name from Yerba Buena and which was about the explode with the discovery of gold in the Sierras.

“All the town lay along Montgomery Street, from Sacramento to Jackson, and about the plaza. Gambling was the chief occupation of the people. While they were waiting for the cessation of the rainy season, and the beginning of spring, all sorts of house were being put up, but of the most flimsy kind, and all were stores, restaurants, or gambling saloons,” wrote the military man, who didn't much care for the city.

Yet for those who appreciate the role of cities as generators of culture and incubators of ideas, there's no question that our future is urban, although even Lapham has his doubts that the great solutions will come from the cities, preferring to see the Internet and its virtual communities as usurping from cities the role of intellectual hubs.

“The intellectual engine of the Bay Area is centered in the Silicon Valley world rather than on Montgomery Street in San Francisco,” he told us, noting how little the financial firms that dominate downtown San Francisco or Wall Street in his home city of New York have to do with addressing the real problems the world faces.

He's right, of course, but that's also why the struggles for the soul of cities are so important and consequential, and why the the Bay Guardian has spilled so much ink fighting downtown over our 44-year history. Because to give in to the bankers and Civil Sidewalks crowd is to give up on the city.

It's not a new struggle, as Friedrich Engels wrote about London in 1844: “Everywhere one finds on the one hand the most barbarous indifference and selfish egotism and on the other the most distressing scenes of misery and poverty. Signs of social conflict are to be found everywhere. Everyone turns his house into a fortress to defend himself – under the protection of the law – form the depredations of his neighbors. Class warfare is so open and shameless that is has to be seen to be believed. The observer of such as appalling state of affairs must shudder at the consequences of such feverish activity and can only marvel that so crazy a social and economic structure should survive at all.”

Four years later, Engels wrote “The Communist Manifesto” with Karl Marx, diagnosing the problems of capitalism and laying out solutions that came awfully close to taking root around the world before they were defeated by Western military and economic powers. Yet the problems persist to this day, manifested most visibly in cities around the world.

Lapham does admit that cities will be the laboratories and incubators of the ideas that are developed. Given the political dysfunction on the state and federal levels, he also agrees with the contention of Guardian Executive Editor Tim Redmond that the age of he Nation-State as the preeminent political authority is passing, and that its likely replacement is the City-State.

“To make democracy work, it needs to be relatively small,” Lapham said, agreeing that localism is the model that is being widely discussed as the answer to many of our political, environmental, and economic problems. And that all comes back to the cities, provided we can seize the opportunity to define ourselves, or as Lapham said, “One of the things we're missing is the idea of a glorious future of some kind.”